Category Archives: Social Studies Elective (Year 3)

The Portfolio for Social Studies

Vita Brevis – Exploring the usage of Artefacts and Sources within Social Studies

Pickford, Garner and Jackson (2013, p.62) define artefacts as being valuable man-made or man-influenced objects that can encapsulate particular locations or sections of time within the world, which explains why they can serve as being strong backbones to particular contexts for establishing social studies learning. They can also vary greatly  in their appearance and purpose. Within Social studies, they can be extremely useful for teachers to be able to paint a picture of a particular era in history that they may be exploring or even be able to showcase a particular culture of a different part of the world (Fines & Nichol, 1997) or even both together, as the social studies subjects are interwoven; a particular place is essential to the event as it is the location in which an event has transpired.

Within our elective inputs we have continually had time to be able to utilise and explore artefacts, thus inspiring this piece within the portfolio as I wanted to delve deeper into the pedagogical core that lies within the teachings of social studies through the usage of artefacts and sources.

A prime example of the usage of artefacts during our inputs was during our Tay Rail Bridge Disaster session where we were able to work with various types of sources relating to the disaster in Dundee. A staff member from the University of Dundee’s Archives came in to provide us with these artefacts and gave us some background knowledge and also emphasised to us as future practitioners the importance of using links like the University of Dundee’s Archive, where real-life sources from particular eras can capture student’s attention towards history and geography. The archiver made some great points in terms of justifying the usage of artefacts with a class, mainly as it allows a great basis for telescoping the past with the present and vice versa. For example, one of the artefacts was a newspaper from the 1880s (a few years after the Tay Rail Disaster, which occurred in 1879) which could be used for the basis of various points for inquiry. We explored how the formats of newspapers will have developed over history and how they compared to the newspapers of today, giving us a greater insight on how the demand for media has adapted as time has progressed, showing that an artefact can take many different approaches when deconstructed. Nicole Brown (2015), a lecturer within education, has also emphasised this point of importance towards the usage of artefacts being capable of exploring multiple faucets of learning, as practitioners can show production processes within enterprise (an area of great importance within Social Studies for Curriculum for Excellence), or a significant event within History, or an artefact can also serve as a contextualised link to a particular culture and language of another country.

Other sources within the input from the time included images that were taken during the aftermath of the collapse of the rail bridge and then of the construction of the rail bridge that stands today, a poem that was found inside one of the victim’s coat pockets that washed up on the shore, and a compensation form that was assumed to be submitted by a family affected by the disaster. In regards to the photographs, we found it quite difficult to pinpoint what the photos were at first due to the omission of captions detailing what the images are. This then brought about an interesting point for criticality in terms of the usage of artefacts. It is all well and good to have real-life artefacts and sources from a particular age, however, if one does not have the story and historical context surrounding the source itself, then a practitioner is left in a difficult position to facilitate correct learning surrounding it.

Artefacts can also be explored through a more imaginative approach if a particular context wants to be explored. Hughes et al. (2000, p.32) believes that the strategy of creating an Evidence Bag can serve as an excellent hook for students to really hone in on criticality towards a particular topic that a practitioner wants to explore. For example, the usage of an old worn suitcase can spark a great discussion surrounding who it might have belonged to, how old it might be and what kind of contents may be inside. This can be the basis for many areas in the curriculum: WWII evacuation, Victorian era and even modern-day evacuations just being a few. Linking back with the example we explored in lectures, even a bag from the Tay Rail Disaster could be employed and items of local significance could be used to get the children to pinpoint where the case/bag was from and what time period it may be. This process allows children to make interpretations with there being no one right answer during the questioning and investigation process, which can aid in self-esteem of students who feel that they are pressured to be right when they provide an answer.

Identity and Context Meet – the usage of an evidence bag approach can really serve as a great basis for getting students to unravel and explore people from the past.

I feel that the biggest impact surrounding artefacts was when we got to see the original version of the poem that was recovered from a body from the waters after the Tay Rail Disaster. Tattered and torn, minute in size and yet it had an instant impact for what it could have meant for whomever had kept it within their possession during their journey on the train. Instantly I felt myself trying to draw conclusions towards this peculiar artefact before us in terms of its backstory… maybe it was written by a close friend or relative to the person… perhaps it was written by the unfortunate soul themselves… or maybe it was written by a loved one and that was why it was packed away safely within their coat pocket…

No matter the true backstory towards this artefact, it showed the power of using real-life sources for exploring the Social Studies. It also brought about a deeper appreciation for Historians as they were able to preserve this piece of history in order for people like us to see a snapshot into the lives of people in the past. The person may have lost their life in the disaster, but the live in through this artefact that they held dearly with them.

We also listened to a piece of fictional prose surrounding the night of the disaster and it really encapsulated the raw emotion that is evident within history.

Vita Brevis – Life is Short: This is the piece of prose that we listened to in the input. It showed the power that fiction can bring towards artefacts surrounding a topic. Click the image to be re-directed to the prose at the BBC.

The prose, created for the BBC School Radio (2017) also emphasised the importance of language and how effectively literacy activities can be used in Social Studies. It was great to be able to explore the artefacts that were from the time of the event, however, a piece of writing that was narrated in such an emotive manner allowed for us as listeners to be able to connect the present with the past, just as the archiver said was the key purpose in teaching social studies. We could relate real human emotions towards something that could feel somewhat abstract in the grand scheme of things; this event happened many years before us and we probably would find it challenging to contextualise it as efficiently without something to captivate our emotions. Using something like this would be beneficial as well for students to hone their listening skills as they need to really be actively listening and engaged to be able to gain the depth of emotion and empathy (Busch and Oakley, 2017) relating towards the topic that was such a sad disaster.

Overall, after the inputs and further reading towards the importance of artefacts and sources within practice whilst teaching the social studies, I feel more capable that I could be adventurous and daring with my teaching of historical topics. This is because I have seen the difference it can make to deep understanding for not only a particular event in history, but also for human reactions to disasters and chaos as a whole. Using a wide breadth of artefacts can also really make a difference in the understanding that is picked up by students. Furthermore, I also understand the issues that can come about with using artefacts that have little story behind them. I also realise the great importance of sourcing artefacts from the likes of the University of Dundee’s Archives, as they can have valuable sources and artefacts that would be otherwise hard to come by within practice.


BBC (2017) School Radio: Victorian railways: 3. The Tay Bridge disaster [Online] Available at: (Accessed: 18 October 2018)

Brown, N. (2015) Teaching with artefacts [Online] Available from: (Accessed: 15 October 2018)

Busch, B. and Oakley, B. (2017) Emotional intelligence: why it matters and how to teach it [Online] The Guardian Available at: (Accessed: 18 October 2018)

Fines, J. & Nichol, J. (1997) Teaching Primary History. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers.

Hughes, P. Cox, K. & Goddard, G. (2000) Primary History Curriculum Guide London: David Fulton Publishers

Pickford, T., Garner, W. & Jackson, E. (2013) Primary Humanities: Learning through Enquiry. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Exploring Powerful Knowledge within Social Studies

Returning back to university to commence third year brings about new areas for personal and professional reflection in regards to my ongoing development as a teacher. This year, I have chosen to do Social Studies as my elective and, just like the Discovering Mathematics module, I have to maintain a blog that relates to my learning within the subject, particularly with how it impacts my criticality and how my views upon teaching as a whole changes and what new learning I can bring to the Social Studies subject as a whole.

I decided to pick this module because, although I studied the subject of History in high school, I believe I need a greater insight on how to better my subject knowledge in Social Studies to go on and be a successful teacher that is confident to teach the areas of geography, history and humanities. Furthermore, during my time in Germany for learning from life, I soon realised that I am lacking a lot of general knowledge surrounding my home country. I may understand particular time periods and history of my local area (relating to the topics that I did during my time in education), but I lack a deeper understanding beyond that. An example of this being that I was asked if it was at all possible to see the Northern Lights from Scotland… Something I still am yet to inquire into.

A particular concept that has sparked my interest within the first inputs is the questioning and re-evaluation of the importance of knowledge that we teach our kids within the context of social studies, which is known as Powerful Knowledge.

Powerful Knowledge has been extensively explored by sociologist and educationalist Michael Young (2013) as he believes that educational institutions have almost turned away from knowledge in favour for a more skills-based curriculum in the modern era. This has then questioned the technicalities and the real importance of knowledge further with the pressures that teachers and their students face with testing and standardised assessments. Young (2013) believes that we shouldn’t write off knowledge as being purely superficial.

There is a continuing debate surrounding the purpose and the importance of knowledge for children during their time in education. Particularly with what knowledge is useful and if there is a clear distinction between useful knowledge and knowledge that is deemed less than useful. If I was to choose a particular historical or geographical topic to teach to my class, I would probably first question, what is it that I want them to know?

To examine this question, I decided to explore the Experiences and Outcomes document for Social Studies:

Learning in the social studies will enable me to:
• develop my understanding of the history, heritage and culture of Scotland, and an appreciation of my local and national heritage within the world
• broaden my understanding of the world by learning about human activities and achievements in the past and present
• develop my understanding of my own values, beliefs and cultures and those of others
• develop my understanding of the principles of democracy and citizenship through experience of critical and independent thinking
• explore and evaluate different types of sources and evidence
• learn how to locate, explore and link periods, people and events in time and place
• learn how to locate, explore and link features and places locally and further afield
• engage in activities which encourage enterprising attitudes
• develop an understanding of concepts that stimulate enterprise and influence business
• establish firm foundations for lifelong learning and for further specialised study and careers. 

(Scottish Government, 2018, p.1) 

I have put some of the key words that stood out to me in bold because I feel that they really made me question what Social Studies really is as a subject. Social Studies is not just a combination of Geography and History, it goes far beyond that. We can see real links to the ‘real world’ and wider issues that impact us as humans within society, rather than the traditional ‘lets learn about these people that lived during this period of time’ with history.

If we are to pick apart Social Studies as a subject within the framework of Curriculum for Excellence alongside the arguments surrounding Powerful Knowledge within the classroom, we can see that knowledge is not entirely at the forefront of the purpose of the subject (the word knowledge itself does not appear within the purposes list at all).

Martin and Owens (2004) supplement this concept with their findings that students work best and thrive within their understanding when the learning, particularly within geography, begins when their own first-hand knowledge is fully appreciated first by a practitioner and then they can branch out and extend. Roberts (2014) highlights this further by reiterating that the knowledge and understanding that the children bring to the table themselves should be appreciated as it is their own ‘personal geographies’ (p.193) which can make a massive difference between the battle of presenting social studies within an abstract or a concrete nature, something that is tricky to master. I think this then should make a practitioner truly question the type of knowledge they want their kids to get out of their learning as Simon (2001) argues that intellectual inquiry (or knowledge-based exploration) can sometimes be dismissive of the importance that moral exploration can bring in knowledge of the wider world (p.36), which obviously links well with the guidelines in the Experiences and Outcomes documents. This, then interlinks the various subsets of social studies and shows that ‘Powerful Knowledge’ is not always just the factual information of our past, but actually a deeper exploration of what makes us human, what made our ancestors human and how we relate to the world around us.

Children cannot and will not see the importance of Geography or History (or any subject for that matter) that is purely presented in a cold, black and white manner.

Overall what this has shown me is that as a learner I might not have the particular knowledge at a specific time that it is needed, however I am capable of inquiring the matter independently which is far more important than the knowledge itself. This means that knowledge may be useful for learning to progress and for a strong context, particularly for Social Studies, to be established, however, as a teacher I need to be able to construct my lessons so that skills are being enhanced and so that criticality is embedded within my student’s outlook towards learning and understanding and to do this effectively I need to ensure I am tapping into the knowledge that the kids in my class bring to me.

I hope to gain a whole lot more from Social Studies this semester!


Martin, F. & Owens, P. (2004) ‘Young children making sense of their place in the world’ in Scoffham, S. ed. Primary Geography Handbook Sheffield: Geographical Association. pp. 63 – 73.

Roberts, M. (2014), ‘Powerful Knowledge and geographical education’ , The Curriculum Journal, Vol.25, N0. 2, pp. 187-209.

Simon, K.G. (2001)  Moral Question in the Classroom: How to Get Kids to Think Deeply About Real Life and Their Schoolwork London: Yale University Press.

Scottish Government (2018) Curriculum for excellence: social studies experiences and outcomes [Pdf] Available at: (Accessed: 21 September 2018).

Young, M. (2013) ‘Overcoming the crisis in curriculum theory: a knowledge-based approach’ in Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45:2, pp. 101-118